Recognizing World Autism Awareness Day:
ANA Group Joins UN Initiative
A conversation between an ANA cabin attendant and a teacher for children with disabilities on the importance of flight preparedness and safety when traveling with students with autism.
World Autism Awareness Day is held every year on April 2 and is recognized by the United Nations’ member states as a day to acknowledge the rights and contributions of autistic people around the world.
This year, ANA Group joins the worldwide initiative by pledging to raise awareness of autism among our employees and customers while striving to assist individuals of all abilities who want to travel. For the past 70 years, it has been our honor to assist a diverse group of passengers with their journey in the sky, including students with autism.
Autism Speaks, a U.S. autism advocacy group, describes autism as a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. Autism is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and attention issues.
Today, we would like to share the story of a group of students with autism that travel with ANA by highlighting a conversation between Mr. Kimihisa Yagishita, a teacher at Aoba School for Children with Disabilities, who has accompanied many students on such trips, and ANA cabin attendant Fumiko Hojo. Please join us in learning how we can ensure passengers of all abilities make unforgettable travel memories.
CA Hojo: Thank you, Mr. Yagishita, for joining me today to talk about what it is like for students with autism to travel on airplanes and what we offer to alleviate the challenges they may encounter while flying.
Mr. Yagishita: It is my pleasure to talk about my own experiences of traveling with students and help raise awareness among not only airline employees like yourself, but also other passengers who happen to be on the same flight with individuals with autism.
Let me first start with boarding the plane.
Following passengers in wheelchairs and traveling with small children, people with autism are included in the priority boarding. This is great because they can board and walk to their seats while there are only a few other passengers on the plane. It can be quite stressful for them to walk in the narrow aisle amongst a crowd.
CA Hojo: I am glad to hear that the priority boarding helps them to board the plane in a less stressful manner. Is there anything we should know about where they are seated?
Mr. Yagishita: The last row is the most ideal for multiple reasons: 1) Other passengers are only seated in front of them, so as teachers we do not have to sit in both front and back rows as a buffer; 2) It is usually close to the lavatories; 3) It is usually close to the galley where cabin attendants are located during the flight helping teachers care for students; 4) It is the last row to exit so they can take their time if they have to.
Many airplanes come with two seats in the last row instead of three, and that is perfect. We would like to avoid having another passenger sitting next to us as much as possible, although pre-flight practices can ease the tension.
CA Hojo: One thing that could be helpful is to print out the seat map off our website prior to the flight and show students where they will be seated. You can perhaps put cut-out pictures or drawings of students’ faces on the map so that they can get familiar with the seating arrangement. Do you have a preference between window and aisle seats?
Mr. Yagishita: Window seats are preferred so that students can see outside if they would like to.
CA Hojo: How about in-flight services? Is there anything we should know?
Mr. Yagishita: If cabin attendants can show a menu card with pictures during the drink service, that will help with communicating to students.
CA Hojo: That sounds like a great idea. It may be more helpful if we can show how the drink service is done with a storyboard like; 1) You will be given a drink soon; 2) Cabin attendants will prepare the drink for you; 3) We will hand the drink over to you.
How else can we assist students and teachers?
Mr. Yagishita: Going to the bathroom on the plane can be tricky for anybody as it is typically compact. We usually stand in front of the unlocked door while a student is using the lavatory. However, as you know, the lavatory light does not turn on when the door is unlocked. It would be great if we can have access to a flashlight or some sort of portable lighting device on the plane.
CA Hojo: The lavatories may be hard to find as the doors are typically blended into the wall. I think it would be reassuring if you could show, prior to the flight, the video to students indicating where the lavatories are located, how to use them and how the light comes on while locking the door.
What should we know about the ascending and descending time?
Mr. Yagishita: During the descent, shifts in the cabin pressure or turbulence can cause students to panic. We try to relax them by comforting them verbally or have them listen to music so that they will not stand up and keep their seat belt on. Ascending and descending are the toughest parts for students to stay calm.
CA Hojo: Not knowing what is going on must be very concerning for them. It would be terrible if students become more agitated and subsequently get hurt. What can we do to help the students during takeoff and landing?
Mr. Yagishita: I recently learned about Sorapass, ANA’s flying support program for students with special needs. As we are planning for another school trip in the spring, our high school students were able to take advantage of this great opportunity last month. An ANA Group staff team came to the school and taught the students what they will have to do at the airport and how to board the airplane. I wish I knew about the program before I took a different group of students to Okinawa last April. As we were planning for the trip amidst the pandemic, we were not sure if we could really go until the last minute and could not do enough to prepare the students, let alone teachers.
CA Hojo: Yes, through Sorapass, students can have a simulated flight experience from going through the security to getting onboard the airplane. Since 2018, we have had opportunities to interact with 473 students from 12 schools in Japan.
It is great to know Sorapass can be an effective tool for students with autism to prepare for upcoming fights. Additionally, the Sorapass videos and Sorapass booklet, which show the domestic “airport to airplane” travel flow could be helpful.
We understand people with autism find it challenging to go outside of their routine and experience new things. I believe what we can do is to inform them in advance and support them so they feel assured about each step of the flight experience. We also need to reach out to teachers, family members and those who accompany passengers with autism to exchange notes prior to the flight to provide a comfortable journey in the sky for all.